If you hang out much with homeless people in London, the Jesus Army tend to come up in conversation. They're basically a street team for the Jesus Fellowship Church, a neocharismatic evangelical movement who throw big God parties where people gather to speak in tongues, reap the benefits of divine healing and witness other miracles of the Holy Spirit. There's an urban myth that circulates around London's homeless that the Jesus Army kidnap people off the streets and put them to work in fields surrounding London. Surely it's not true?
Last year, more Londoners sought help from the homeless charity Shelter than ever before. The number of people in the UK who had to rely on handouts to feed themselves tripled. But is that really such a bad thing? In a Parliament debate about that very issue, Esther McVey – Conservative Minister for Disabled People – seemed keen to focus on the bright side. "It is positive that people are reaching out to support other people – from church groups to community groups, to local supermarkets and other groups," she said. Leaving aside McVey's fairly audacious attempt to turn growing food poverty into some kind of victory for Big Society, who exactly are these "other groups" that the government are trusting to feed their starving population? Well, alongside the food banks and soup kitchens, one alternative source of help are the Jesus Fellowship Church.
Unlike other Pentecostal churches, many of the Fellowship's members attempt to recreate the lifestyles of the first Christians – which means living in communes where everything from work and food, to Jesus's love, is shared.
But these communes – of which there are over 60 in the UK – don't run themselves. So, some of the Jesus Army's soldiers spend their nights cruising around London and other urban areas in vans, looking for new recruits to take back to these households, which have names like Dayspring and Crown of Life. As well as those who sleep rough each night, they also enjoy looking after drunk students on what they call "club missions", where Jesus Army "cell groups" with pink crosses round their necks hand out water and give flip-flops and foot massages to girls in high-heels. Each Jesus Army house sleeps anything from 12 to 40 people and all of them are led by a group of male "brothers".
The largest of these communities is the New Creation Farm in Northamptonshire, which is also the centre of the church's lucrative timber, agriculture and architecture industries – much of which are run by those recruited off the streets. The most recent published accounts for House of Goodness Limited, the parent company of the Jesus Army's businesses, shows an operating profit of £437,751 (£300,000 of which was given to the Church as a charitable donation).
Speaking to homeless people in London, we were told to stay away from the Jesus Army, who warned us that they would lure us back to their New Age farm with the promise of food and a bed, before stealing our money and making us work for no pay. A homeless Londoner named Scott Larkin told us, "We're old, so we understand the score. But the Jesus Army prey on the young and vulnerable, especially in the winter when the cold sets in. They offer you food, and before you know it you're on a farm in Northampton. They make you sign over your benefit money and then you're trapped in the middle of nowhere."
Stories from the 1980s and 90s of infiltration by child beaters and an "absolutely relentless paedophile" – incidents that, the Jesus Army stresses, were deeply regrettable and happened in a pre-CRB check world – have done nothing for their reputation. But we didn't want to take the rumours we had heard at face value. We wanted to meet them.
Maybe the Jesus Army was the creepy cult that we'd been told about, or perhaps it was just a misunderstood attempt to live differently and help some homeless people in the process. After all, many similar institutions have found their good intentions exploited by unsavoury characters in the past. We decided to go to one of the food drops where the Jesus Army regularly evangelise and hand out food to find out. It wasn't long before Edmund and Peter – two senior members of the church – were inviting us back to their farm.
"Why don't you come stay at our farm for a few nights," Peter asked us, "and see what we're about?"
"Sure," we replied.
"There are loads of young lads there like yourselves."
We got in the car and started the long drive out of London. Peter called ahead to tell his brethren that they were bringing back "a couple of strong young lads from London", before asking, "Could you set out some beds for them?"
"The church needs strong young men," he explained. "Strong young men do the Lord's work."
Our two hosts then started asking us whether we'd ever had girlfriends or been in love. Of course, this quickly segued into the topic of Jesus and how he had poured his love into their hearts. For Edmund, that love was filling a void left by an ex-wife; for Peter, it had set him on the straight and narrow after a misspent youth of Northern Soul and amphetamines.
After nearly an hour and a half of chatting about God, in which we were warned not to have sex outside of marriage because "God wants a mum and a dad", we arrived at the New Creation Farm. Peter said it was the Jesus Army's "Zion on a hill". The place is massive; it's not some eco-squat selling sloe berry jam to supplement the collection plate, it's a multi-acre complex with its own commercial litigation firm.
It was late by the time we arrived, so we were led inside one of the large communal houses for a cup of tea. There, we met some other commune members who were getting back from their days working on the farm or in the outside world. We shot the shit about farming for a bit, in the stilted way a couple of guys who've never watered a basil plant – let alone tilled a potato field – do when they turn up at a stranger's house 70 miles away from home and there's absolutely no alcohol in sight.
Then they showed us their music studio. It was nothing too flashy, but you'd hardly expect to see Daniel Lanois racking up lines in some kind of space-deck control room while four guys bash out a funk version of "My God Is An Awesome God".
Don't want to be a dick or anything but sitting in a room and being forced to listen to enthusiastic Christian rock is pretty excruciating, especially as one guy – clearly in the midst of a mystical experience – wouldn't stop dancing. Edmund told us how many musical people were part of the church, and how much we would enjoy playing with them. They even managed to get Simon to join in, which led to some pretty huge pious beats and the world's most awkward smile.
And let's see that in GIF form:
A commune member – an energetic fellow who described everything as "awesome" and carried himself like a Blue Peter presenter – had just come up with a keyboard riff that sounded kind of like the guitar line from "Ain't Talkin' Bout' Love" by Van Halen. He was pretty fond of it.
Everyone jammed aimlessly over that for what must have been about eight minutes, or however long it took to play several hundred reiterations of the same melody. When they finished, we had a brainstorming session about what the song could be about.
"It could be about someone's life starting anew," suggested Edmund, helpfully.
When we'd finished rocking out, we were shown to our room in the communal house, which we were to share with two strong, young lads of about our age. We told them we were agnostic in unconvincing tones and they said they wouldn't even mind if we were atheists, as they "weren't as crazy as Mormons" and that they "used to think Christians were weird, just like everybody else". They even made a knowing joke about how they could be perceived as cult-like, telling us that we were obliged to "get up at five for a prayer meeting... Jokes!" (Turns out there is one at 7AM on Wednesday, but you don't have to go if you don't want to.)
Ben, a German tourist who had found out about the Church through couchsurfing.org, had been staying there for a month despite not being a Christian. "Every so often they ask me if I want to become a Christian," he said. "I just say 'no', and they go, 'Okay.'"
One of our roommates, a 16-year-old named Tim, joined the Jesus Army to escape his father, who was a drug addict. God's love had helped him get over his own addiction faster than any normal rehab programme, he told us. Another, Mahdi, a 23-year-old, was running away from his overbearing Muslim parents. Most people here seemed to be running from something, be it addiction, abuse or just the rat race. But they had also made sacrifices for this life, it seems; Tim and Mahdi had both taken a vow of celibacy, as the church believes that you can better concentrate on praising God if you're not distracted by the possibility of getting laid.
You don't have to believe in God or participate in any prayer or rituals to get a bed; the Jesus Army will still feed and house you for a time. Nevertheless, we'd heard reports that homosexuality was frowned upon in the church. "Homophobia isn't really an issue for us," Mahdi explained. "It's a sin to act on homosexual desire, but so is having sex before marriage, really."
That said, homophobia was very much an issue for Kristen Roe, who said he was kicked out of the Jesus Army after two years because he was gay. "I joined them in 2002 because I was homeless and I didn't know anyone," he told us. "They seemed pretty OK; they told me they'd give me a place to sleep. For the first few months they're friendly, but then they do everything they can to control you," he alleged. "I wasn't allowed to contact my family for two years. They said I was possessed because of my sexuality."
When we awoke the next morning, our roommates had already gone to work. So we went downstairs to get breakfast with Ben, and that was when we finally caught our first glimpse of female life with the Jesus Army: in the kitchen. Women were serving us food and cleaning our tables, but we didn't think much of it; if every time I went to a cafe and got served by a woman I accused the owner of being a misogynist, I wouldn't have many places left to eat. However, once we'd read the Jesus Army's statement of beliefs, we realised that it was no coincidence that the only women we had seen were mopping up our toast crumbs in silence.
"As women, we accept the headship of godly men," reads the statement. "This is not a question of equality, but of social and spiritual role... In today's society the roles have become blurred. Men often wear the pinny whilst women go out to work. Sadly this is sometimes necessitated by unemployment and financial pressure. But it's not God's perfect way. God wants men to be men and women to be women. It makes sense really. He created us male and female. He should know what's best for us!"
"So, are women inferior?" the statement asks. "No! God's not into first and second class status. He's into equality! As women, we don't need to prove our equality. God has done it! This world is full of people trying to be who they are not – square pegs trying to fit into round holes. And it brings frustration, anxiety and depression. In the church of Jesus it's different. Women can relax and be women. Jesus women!"
When we'd fulfilled our masculine potential – which, according to God's plan, means eating breakfast and not cleaning up after ourselves – we wandered around New Creation Farm's many acres, shocked at the sheer size of the agricultural operations going on there. The Jesus Army has a sizeable business empire, selling everything from tools, timber, heating and building materials and supplying painting, decorating, carpentry, metalworking and vehicle maintenance services. There are even architectural and legal practices, and all the money is funnelled back into building the community.
They have an entire pamphlet titled "Wealth Creation for Jesus", which details the church's goals to "transfer wealth from Satan's rule to God's, to be used for the growth of His kingdom". Their literature claims that "Jesus is truly Lord of our finances", and this is played out in the church's grip on its members' wallets.
Nick told us he used to be homeless and into drugs. He now has a job in the farm's timber industry, though he doesn't get to keep any of the money himself. All profits earned by members of the Jesus Army go into a "common pot". If, like Nick, you're stuck in the catch-22 of trying to get a job with no home and no employment history, a working role in a commune that provides food and board is a great deal, and the church says that the "ethos of sharing and friendship is important to all our members".
But according to Kristen Roe – and some homeless sources we met – the Jesus Army intentionally target homeless and vulnerable people in order to take their benefit money. "My job was to look after the chickens," Kristen told us. "Every bit of my money went into the Jesus Army communal pot, and I didn't get a penny back when I was kicked out. In fact, after I'd been forced out, they continued to claim my housing benefits for four weeks.
"They deliberately target vulnerable homeless people," Kristen continued. "I used to be one of the people who handed out sandwiches [to homeless people]. Basically, what they do is they help you fill out the benefit forms. They then make you sign over all your money to them. If you've got a bank account and you've got savings, then you have to give that to them as well.
"They say you get the money back when you leave, but you don't. We don't know where the money goes or what they do with it; they never, ever get rid of your benefit details or your bank details, and they make you sign a disclaimer to tell no one what happens at the Jesus Army."
It's hard to know who to believe. After hanging around for about a month, Ben was full of praise for the commune. "I think the government could learn something from the Jesus Army [when it comes to caring for the vulnerable]," he said. He was leaving for home the next week and his main problem was finding something to fill the time until then. Bored out of his mind, he tried to convince us to hang around for a bit longer, but we declined.
We walked out of the farm and to the next village. There was no team of guards forbidding us from leaving, just Ben following us like a bored, sad puppy. We got on a bus, leaving him to wait out the remaining days before his plane home to Germany, surrounded by a load of people talking endlessly about God.
When we got back to normality, we confronted the Jesus Army with the accusations levelled at them by Kristen. A spokesman told us that, "We never see a person's sexuality as the result of demonic 'possession'; this is repeatedly reaffirmed by our leadership. We have a comparatively large number of LGBT members. We do not try to get them to 'change'. Though we do have a marquee and we do pray for people to be healed or blessed in various ways, we do not hold mass 'confession' and 'healing' ceremonies of the kind Kristen describes, and we would never try to 'exorcise' or 'heal' a gay person out of being gay in any way. There may be a range of views among our members – who are, after all, individuals – but our position as a church is that being gay is not a sin. I will say that I am, myself, in support of gay marriage."
Which is pretty emphatic. Overall, he said, "I am genuinely puzzled by Kristen's account because so much of it bears little or no resemblance to anything I can imagine happening in the Jesus Army."
However, Kristen's account does bear a strong resemblance to similar testimonies from the 90s, and the church states that it makes "exorcism an important part of our ministry in the Gospel". With its advocacy of trad gender roles and its opposition to sex outside of marriage, it's hard to see how the church's apparent LGBT members would be able to express their sexuality in a way that the community was happy with.
As for whether the church takes people's benefit money, the spokesman said, "Most people joining the Jesus Army do so as normal church members with no direct involvement in the community side of our life. Those staying on one of our community houses have a week free, then pay board and lodging at an agreed rate for the duration of their stay. Long-term members of our Christian community houses have a shared bank account. All these long-term, committed community members contribute their income – wages and/or benefits – into this common account. If community members want to leave, they may request a refund of their capital contribution. It is the community's policy to return this in full. Many of those who do decide to leave the community continue to take a full part in wider church activities; others may join another church."
He also denied that the church keeps people's bank details when they leave, or that they make people sign a disclaimer not to talk about the church, adding, "We believe the love, care and friendship available in a church such as ours is worth sharing. If people leave, we seek to remain in friendly contact – some of our most staunch friends and supporters are ex-members. If people leave having fallen out with someone or with some other grievance, we're very sorry about that and would seek to put things right if possible. But anyone's free to talk about their experience with us whether they see it as positive or negative."
The Jesus Army did not try to brainwash us into joining a sex cult full of strong young runaway lads. You'd have to be Richard Dawkins not to recognise the genuine warmth and generosity with which they welcomed us into their home. We definitely had a much better night on the farm than we would have had on the street. But while the Jesus Army would argue that helping the needy is an integral part of the way they practice their faith, when they're preaching at and handing sandwiches to a captive audience of vulnerable people, their kindness could seem a little coercive. Though reading that sentence back, it sounds massively cynical.
Deciding you want to leave normal life and enter a world where women are servants, sexuality outside of straight, traditional marriage is repressed and where all the proceeds of your work are pooled is fine if that's really what you want – it's a free country. But what about the people who make these sacrifices for a God they may or may not believe in because it's a choice between that and the street?
As Kristen put it, "Their numbers are growing. More and more homeless people are joining up because our country isn't doing anything to help the homeless. So, of course, when the Jesus Army comes along, it seems like all you have to do is pretend to believe in God – and there you go! You've got a home and a ready-made family."
They say you can't choose your family, a saying that holds true for some of the homeless people who end up with the Jesus Army.